British Columbia’s ferry system is a large and varied operation having to meet the requirements of a wide range of customers.
BC Ferries public affairs manager Darin Guenette spoke to the Powell River Chamber of Commerce at its recent annual general meeting, highlighting the ferry system and its operation.
There are 26 routes and 47 terminals up and down coast from the bottom of Vancouver Island all the way to Haida Gwaii. The fleet totals 35 vessels, with capacities ranging from 12 to 350 automobile equivalent, which is a 20-foot space of deck. Passenger capacities on the vessels range from 133 to more than 2,000. Crew sizes range between four and 51 members.
“It’s a pretty varied size of fleet for the needs that are varied across all of the communities,” said Guenette.
He said he talks about BC Ferries being three distinct services. There are the northern routes, from Port Hardy north, comprising long haul service using bigger vessels on ocean-going routes, and the major routes, the workhorses that carry 65 to 70 per cent of the traffic on four routes between Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island and the lower Sunshine Coast.
The third distinct service includes the inter-island routes.
“These are our bread and butter customers,” said Guenette. “These are our most frequent customers who live up and down all of the islands. We consider the Powell River community similar.
“A lot of people who need to come and go for commuting or services that aren’t available in their community, they are going for social and family activities like sports; they are our highest usage customers. These are customers we need to pay very close attention to.”
Guenette spoke about recent on-time performance figures. Fleet reliability is the number of times BC Ferries sails versus the number of times a ferry is scheduled and should sail. He said it’s well over 99 per cent.
“If you’re on a ferry, it’s about to go and it breaks, that’s a huge impact to you because you were going somewhere important, but it’s 0.3 per cent of the time,” said Guenette. “We aim to get it as close to 100 per cent and it’s pretty darn close, but it’s a big challenge.”
In 2003, the government of the day passed legislation called the Coastal Ferry Act. It did three fundamental things. It changed BC Ferries, which had been a crown corporation, into an independent, privately managed company. Guenette said BC Ferries manages its own operation and is self-financing as far as capital purchases and upgrades.
It also established the position of the BC Ferries commissioner, who is an independent regulator who is responsible for monitoring activities and making sure expenditures are of interest of the customer.
The third party involved is the provincial government. The act allows the province to establish the coastal ferries services contract. It is what establishes how ferry services come about, such as service levels and the frequency of sailings on an annual capacity basis. The province also establishes how the general levels of fares are established.